ST this morning features a 75-year-old man who has given me a point of inflection towards a certain hope.
The man is Peter Yeo Toon Joo who was a news editor for ST, Noon Daily and New Nation. He was also marketing manager of The Singapore Monitor.
Journalist Lee Siew Hua interviewed him via email and here is his eye-opening journey.
“His catalogue of trauma started with hepatitis that almost killed him at age 13. In adult life, he suffered two heart attacks, skin cancer, a tumour in the scrotum, bone marrow failure and bone cancer.”
”He survived a head-on collision with a cab, and also a near plane crash. In 1984, the aircraft (he) was flying in suddenly plunged in mid-air over Germany with flames spewing from its wings.”
Indomitable, Peter never gave up on life. A man his age has gone through a major part of life’s journey, and as Elton John would say, “He’s still standing” - even if he has to carry a portable oxygen concentrator around.
That portable life support was with him because in 2010 he was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (“IPF”). “This causes scar tissue to build up in the lungs, depriving (Peter) of oxygen.” Talk about never catching a break in life.
Peter explains what IPF means: “We end up grasping for air, even with the least exertion. Death comes through asphyxiation, just like drowning.”
Peter definitely has a story to tell at 75, a witness to life from cradle to two near death experiences.
He recounted that while undergoing surgery in 1989 and 1991, he had two out-of-body experiences, which he said transformed him. “I went to hell...(it) changed me completely and banished forever my fear of death.”
“Those hellish experiences, with tormenting playbacks of his past high-living life when he partied, drank and womanised, turned his life around.”
Peter said: “My desire is to use my story to encourage those who are ill, in distress and live in fear of their sickness and death.”
And what have been keeping Peter from giving up are his wife, Rosalind (72), married for 51 years, his love of life, his sense of humour, his circle of friends, and his Christian faith.
In fact, when he was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis in 2010, doctors gave him 2 years to live, 5 years max. Yet, today he is still alive and kicking, even if he has to push his oxygen concentrator around.
As a backdrop, Peter retired in 1998, when he was 53, and travelled the world. He took in many precious breaths of life he was given to drive long distances in his Mercury Cougar sports coupe, playing with his four grandsons, and embracing sports since young like boxing, swimming, football, rugby, badminton and pumping iron.
Peter said: “My last swim was in early 2020 when I nearly drowned as I ran out of air while doing a very slow lap in a pool.” His primary caregiver Dr Diane Tuffel, told him: “You are the fittest sick person I have ever treated.”
Lesson? One. And, who am I kidding? There are not many Peter kind in our world. We all live our lives differently. We overcome at our own pace. We may have the same stubborn heart that beats for life, yet our struggles are different too.
Peter is who he is today because of so many factors, genetic as well as circumstances. His life is rather unique and his story is too.
In the long journey of life, most arduous when you are forced at various crossroads to sit down and have a long, sapping dialogue of silence with your own mortality, your story is less of an objective narrative and more of a subjective one.
Reality is therefore how you experience it, and that experience is vicerally personal, intensely intimate, and so is the pain and the hope, both in tears of torment and joy. No two realities are thus the same.
However, while experiences and stories differ, what we all share when we go through such trying times is that we often see things clearly, with profound depth that words mostly fall short. And life opens up too when death closes the gap with every ponderous breath taken.
At life’s edge, Peter drew the distinction between the fear of death and dying. “I now fear nothing, definitely not death. Only the process of dying, that could be tough, traumatic and agonising for an IPF patient.”
He said: “The only thing I have difficulty reconciling myself to is the pain of ageing too fast and being ill.” Well, that may just be what many of us would experience too - not so much the dread of the end, but the process that brings it all to the end.
Alas, in all his achievements, being a news editor, a consultant in public relations, advertising and marketing communications, and being able to retire at 53 to travel the world, Peter comes to this reflection about life: “Success is like building sandcastles.”
And this is what he shared about a life pursuing pleasure: “Some of you in the business world may know of Yeo Toon Joo, No. 2 man in New Nation, who wasn’t exactly the nicest of men at all - in the office and at home. And a heavy drinker until he almost died...I tried almost everything to find pleasure.”
Now, facing the sunset of his life, Peter said: “I have a very good and loving caregiver in my wife, Rosalind.”
Truly, death concentrates the mind wonderfully, and in life’s crucible, what really matters after the furnace fire burns itself out is the people who are still around by your side, holding your hands, and sharing your pain and joy.
In such a life, there are no sandcastles that the tides of time can ever wash away. Neither is a life dedicated to such enduring pursuit ever wasted, because as poet Kahlil Gibran challenges us to ask: “Is not dread of thirst when your well is full, the thirst that is unquenchable?”
That was the unquenchable thirst that Peter had to give up when he said, “I tried almost everything to find pleasure” before he found his well of living waters that will never run out.
And that may also be why he is able to say this about the broken sting of death - “Death, when it comes, would only be a change of address, to a new domicile.”